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Voice defined America's team
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Forsyth County News
As far as TV technology goes, 1991 wasn't really much of a watershed year. But good luck trying to tell this writer's 10-year-old self that.

That was the year my parents finally broke down and subscribed to cable. Out of nowhere, our living room was filled with all kinds of entertainment options I had been vaguely aware existed, based on afternoon trips to friends' houses and schoolyard conversations that had always been a little beyond me.

Amid the glut of bright, noisy cartoons and specially-edited-for-TV movies (with all the really naughty words cut out) came another new addition to the one-sided conversation: Braves baseball on TBS.

More specifically, Skip Caray and Braves baseball on TBS.

I'll admit it, I picked a good time to tune into the Braves. In '91, the team rebounded from a last-place finish the previous year (back in the days where baseball only had four divisions, and finishing last meant you had a loser you could REALLY be proud of) and came within a gnat's eyebrow of winning the World Series.

Of course, Kirby Puckett broke my young heart and the Braves lost in '91 — but I was hooked. The Braves had set up camp right in the middle of my childhood consciousness, and Skip was a huge part of it. Maybe even bigger than the team, since he was unlikely to be traded or sidelined with a pulled hamstring.

Sure, he wasn't the only announcer for the team, but if you had asked me who embodied Braves baseball, I'd have thrown out Skip's name without missing a beat.

During the brief period in my teen years where I considered becoming a sportscaster — before I figured out my sense of timing was better suited to a keyboard than a microphone — Skip was probably the biggest influence on my thinking.

The man had a voice that was unmistakably his, one of those rare sounds that you knew without a doubt had never belonged to another living human, and would leave the planet forever on the day its owner breathed his last. That day definitely came too quick.

But aside from his distinctive nasal tone, Skip had substance. He was just plain funny. The guy had a dry, biting sense of humor you rarely come across in sportscasting, where the archetypes range from the Voice of God play-by-play guy — too busy exuding the gravitas that comes from being a Very Serious Man to crack wise — to the retired player-turned-color commentator, usually more than eager to make jokes on the air which just as usually make the audience wish he'd stayed down on the field and out of the booth.

Skip was a fan, but he was no Braves apologist. When the team stunk, he'd encourage viewers to walk their dogs instead of watching such a sorry display. And when his voice rose and he got excited — like when Sid Bream rounded home in 1992 to snatch a pennant from the Pirates' grasp, or when the final out in the 1995 World Series meant the Braves had finally scaled the ultimate peak — you knew it was a big, big deal.

Of course, Skip was no saint. He had his prickly side too. I can recall often listening to his pre-game radio call-in show, where fans would phone in to get clarification on arcane points of the game like the infield fly rule, or try to get answers to obscure trivia questions like how many unassisted triple plays had taken place west of the Mississippi during the month of August.

To say Skip was polite to most of these callers would be — well, a lie. He was gruff, impatient and clearly anxious to dispose of what he regarded as dumb questions quickly.

My sister had another word for his style.

"BJ, this man's rude!" was her aggrieved declaration as she hung out in my room one afternoon, watching me play muted video games while Skip got audibly annoyed with a caller on the radio.

There was no arguing with her on that point — but I still liked Skip. After all, the man was a walking encyclopedia of baseball knowledge. Think about the one subject you know inside out. Then imagine what it would be like to have to answer questions about it on a daily basis from people who are obviously less-informed than you. You might fight the urge to let your impatience show. But you'd still have the urge, all the same.

There's one more thing Skip was. He was the voice of baseball for millions of people without a team.

When Ted Turner came up with the crazy idea to beam his little TBS channel across the country in 1976, suddenly honest-to-goodness big league baseball games were available every night to ranchers in North Dakota and tobacco growers in Kentucky, housewives in Kansas and high-school girls in rural New York state. People who had never had a big-time baseball team of their own, or just weren't all that keen on the local team, suddenly had the Braves to latch onto — and Skip, a Midwesterner turned Atlantan, was right there to describe it all for them.

Maybe it's fitting that Skip chose this time to record the 27th out and call it a lifetime. Things are different now. The Braves left TBS last year, relegated to more of a regional presence now.

The magical period that sucked me in — when the sky seemed like the limit every year, when you always knew that the team was among the best in baseball and the heck with anybody who tried to badmouth them — belongs to the past now.

The Braves have turned a corner. It's a different day, and that halcyon era from the '90s and earlier this decade when the team won their division 14 seasons running is gone.

Skip Caray was a huge part of all that. Now he's gone too.

From where I sit, 1991 suddenly seems a very long way off.